EMEKA Ugwu-Oju, President, South-East/South-South Professionals of Nigeria (SESSPN) in this interview with SAM NZEH, speaks on achievements of the organisation in the past 10 years, its plan to stem unemployment in the region, resurgence of militancy in the Niger Delta and pro-Biafra protests among others. Excerpts:
Ten years after, would you say the objectives have been achieved?
I think that as a body, the South-East/South-South Professionals of Nigeria (SESSPN) has come a relatively long way. We had our ups and downs; we are not there yet, but the good thing is that we have made good progress. For me, the most important progress we’ve made within the period under review is trying to get most of our people to focus on what we need to do to make our region the best it can be. For instance now, we have a 20-year development agenda to turn the South-East/South-South region into the most developed place in the country once it is ratified by the different stakeholders which we believe will happen sometime this year after which action on the plan will commence.
The South-East South-South is fast becoming a restive region and many link this to unemployment; so what’s your group doing to stem unemployment in the region?
Our 20-year development agenda addresses the problem of unemployment in the South-East/South-South region and we hope that once the agenda is up and running, the problem of unemployment would be greatly reduced. The development agenda is anchored on five pillars. One of the pillars is Agriculture. The other is Industrailsation and since oil and Gas is found in the region, one of the pillars of the development agenda is Oil and Gas but particularly focusing on value addition to the products. This, we believe, will create a lot of jobs for our teeming youths. For instance, one of the projects captured in our 20-year development agenda which is almost ready for take-off will happen this year and with this, we believe that some of the problems of unemployment in the region will be addressed. That project is the Brass Fertiliser and Chemical project which during construction phase will have not less than 10,000 persons on site every day. Thereafter, for those working on the project and others distributing the products produced, we might have up to 100,000 persons involved. Once this happens and other projects like it take off, then not only will unemployment be a thing of the past in the South-East/South-South but we will be looking for people from other regions to come and work in the region.
Another thing that we are doing to tackle unemployment in the region is encouraging skill acquisition by our youths. This is the reason Education is one of the pillars of our 20-year development agenda. Towards this, we are focusing on putting in place skill development trainings to equip youths in the region with requisite skills that will enable them to get jobs.
A lot of us make the mistake of thinking that government creates jobs but the truth is that it doesn’t. Whatever job government creates is limited but it is projects like the one we are facilitating that create jobs. This is why we are in contact with state governments in the region with a view to encouraging them to provide the enabling environment for economic activities to thrive.
Is your group concerned about the resurgence of militancy in the Niger Delta region and what is the roadmap to ending this?
The South-East/ South-South Professionals of Nigeria (SESSPN) because we are from the region, we know the kind of things going on and we are concerned about the resurgence of militancy in the Niger Delta. We don’t subscribe to the idea of calling the militants or agitators terrorists. In saying this, we are not saying that there are no criminal elements that will use the cover of injustice to perpetrate crime. This is why we are trying to encourage all the parties especially the government to do what is right and that is to provide an enabling environment that will make it easier to deal with the criminal elements in this issue. This is because if a people get the idea that their own government, either by body language or direct actions see them as conquered people or people who do not belong, then it gives room for people to do all sorts of things. This is what is happening in the Niger Delta presently; people feel alienated. Some persons might want to think otherwise but that’s what is happening.
We are happy that the Federal Government has seen that dialogue is the way forward in resolving the resurgence of militancy in the Niger Delta and as a group, the South-East/South- Professionals of Nigeria will encourage a meaningful dialogue between the Federal Government and all stakeholders. We are also delighted at what the Minister of State, Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, is doing to stem the renewed restiveness in the Niger Delta. He’s doing a great job; he is from the region and should know the feelings of the people which people who are not from the region may not know or may want to wish away.
In as much as we want to have peace in all parts of Nigeria, but we must realise that peace without justice is peace of the graveyard. So basically, what the people of the South-East/South-South want is equity and justice which of course yields desired peace. If we have a just and equitable country, I guarantee that it will be very easy to deal with criminal elements in the Niger Delta region and the entire Nigeria. But when there is feeling of inequity and injustice, then there is room for all sorts of things to happen and it makes it tougher to deal with criminal elements.
This is what the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration has to understand – that meaning well is not the same thing as what the perception is. The perception is that the current government is anti-South-East/South-South. We can shout and say, no, Mr. President is fair, but the perception in the South-East and South-South is different. We know that Mr. President is a fair man, but we want action to speak louder than words. That’s why we believe that in the dialogue that the government is considering to engage with stakeholders in the Niger Delta, there should be milestones on certain things that needs to be done that will be fair and just to the people of the South-East and South-South. Once this happens, stakeholders like us will be in a position to ask those in the region who feel agitated to trust the government that they mean business. But such trust can’t be in a vacuum and that is the essence of the dialogue. So, in the dialogue that government is planning, let’s have short term, medium term milestones that will encourage those in the region who feel aggrieved rightly or wrongly the chance to trust the incumbent government. Violence doesn’t do any good but of course you can’t beat a child and expect him/her not to cry.
How do you rate the performance of Minister of State, Petroleum, Ibe Kachikwu?
I think Dr. Kachikwu is doing great in spite of challenges and he should be allowed time to consolidate on the things he has so far initiated. If not that we live in the country of regrets, the deregulation or liberalisation of the petrol sub sector of the oil sector which the minister is presently pursuing is something we should have done long ago. Presently under Dr. Kachikwu, the government is pursuing full deregulation of the oil industry; the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is being revamped and commercialised to create room for better performance. Governance is not about beauty contest but doing right things some of which may be with some pains is and when the gains begin to trickle in, people will start smiling.
What’s your assessment of President Muhammadu Buhari administration one year after?
We all agree that there has been a serious effort by the Buhari administration in the last one year to fight corruption. While this is commendable, I for one and a lot of professionals from the South-East and South-South believe that the major problem we should be focusing on is creating wealth, not corruption. It is true that corruption is a problem in Nigeria, but not creating wealth is the biggest problem facing Nigeria at present. This, I believe, is what the Buhari administration should now focus on while still doing all it can to stem corruption. The administration should put in more effort in encouraging the creation of wealth. If we have zero corruption but no wealth, it all amounts to nothing. But if you have wealth and have corruption, then if corruption eats what it can eat, there will still be something remaining to live by. If you have nothing to eat and there is no corruption, you’re as good as dead. So, the Buhari administration going forward should focus more on creating wealth.
Again, while a lot was done by the Buhari administration in the last one year to fight corruption, I believe the fight should be more institutionalised. The fight also should be a bit fairer than it is presently. Whether we like to admit it or not, the perception people have about the fight against corruption by the Buhari administration is that it only targets the opposition. Though the PDP had been in power at the federal level in the last 16 years, the opposition parties were also in power in some states during the same period. So, are we saying that corruption in the last 16 years was only at the federal level and not in the states? If we all agree that there was corruption at the state level during the last 16 years, then we should have seen one or two persons from the present ruling party docked for corruption. We have not seen that yet, however that doesn’t mean that we should discountenance the effort made by the Buhari administration to bring corrupt persons to book. The administration should therefore fight corruption irrespective of the political parties people belong. This way, the perception that the fight is targeted at opposition figures will be erased.
In the area of security, the Buhari administration tried to do something reasonable but unfortunately the atrocities committed by herdsmen in some parts of the country has overshadowed the effort. The mayhem by herdsmen is a monster that has to be dealt with decisively by the Buhari administration before it escalates.
We hope that going forward, solutions will be put in place to minimize conflicts arising from cattle rearing across the country. And one solution which has been in use across the world is putting the cattle in ranches. Ranching is the modern way of rearing cattle, so nothing stops Nigeria from adopting it. Let’s have the cows in ranches where they will be more productive instead of having them roam about looking for food.
What’s your take on the way security forces particularly the military handled the pro-Biafra protests in Onitsha and other cities across the South East recently?
The way the military handled the demonstration by pro-Biafra groups in commemoration of the Biafra Day was unfortunate. To know that lives were lost in the confrontation saddens me. The loss of lives could have been avoided if the security forces had shown more restraint in the use of lethal weapons.
Let me say however that Biafra is just a name and those who want Biafra should define what they mean by it. If by Biafra, they are looking for a place where they will get equity, justice and freedom, the question to ask is: are they are not getting that in Nigeria? Do Nigerians not want equity, justice and freedom? These are just what every human being wants. I’m sure if these are available in Nigeria, those agitating for a separate Biafra will not be doing so.
Having said that, let me say that in a democratic setting such as we have presently in Nigeria, people are free to agitate for what they believe is in their interest as well as protest and this right should not be abridged under any circumstance. It is for the government and other stakeholders to engage those agitating or protesting in such a way as to avoid violence and loss of lives. If such people behind the agitations or protests including pro-Biafra groups are engaged, it is possible to show and convince them that they could realise their aspirations of a place where there is equity, justice, freedom, etc, in Nigeria without necessarily separating from it. I think people agitating for Biafra do so because they think that they are not getting equity, justice and freedom in Nigeria but if you show them that they can get these and much more in Nigeria, they would not hesitate to drop their agitation. People are not agitating for Biafra to go to a place that they will die, have no food, no justice, equity and freedom, rather they are looking for a place where there is equity, justice, freedom. If you give them these in Nigeria, I’m sure most of them will not mind dropping their agitation.